Biology Major - What to look for in a college

My junior daughter is interested in majoring in possibly biology. She is not interested in a profession that interacts with patients but more in research or working in a lab or perhaps plant biology-- she’s really just not sure at this stage, after all she is only 16 years old! Her father and I do not have careers in anyway related to science and just having trouble evaluating when looking at colleges if they have decent biology/science programs. Every school tries to promote themselves in the best possible light and when we look through the courses offered it’s really hard to differentiate what constitutes a good program when we ourselves have no expertise in this area. The larger universities seem to offer a lot of different majors and opportunities but wondering about smaller or med LACs that may not offer as much but do offer more 1:1 attention from the professors. A good example of this is we visited Marist College and really liked the school but just not sure what to make of their science offerings as it’s not one of their top majors. Any advice what to look for in Biology Depts would be so appreciated! Thank you!

Biology is a broad field with many subareas. Consider how well the biology department at each college covers the subareas of possible interest.

In the College Majors section there is a board on science majors you may find helpful. My daughter has some interest in the natural sciences and I noticed some threads discussing the value of a more general undergraduate biology program versus undergraduate specialties. (There was a general bias against over specialization for undergrads.)

My general understanding is that you can get a great science education at small and medium sized LACs. But I’m not sure how to present how I came to that conclusion. It is true that women who attend women’s colleges are more likely to finish with a science degree.

Good luck (from the sporty mom who used to refer to intermission at my kid’s musical performances as halftime. Isn’t is great that we our children expand our horizons. My son is a freshman in engineering and that was a learning curve for me.)

A small biology department may by default require specialization, because some subareas may be absent from faculty interests and expertise.

If your daughter is interested in research and/or lab work, I would look into colleges where undergrads are involved.

I would look at the variety of classes that are offered and how easy it is to take any that might not be required for graduation…but are of interest.

Talk to students and ask how available the professors are, etc.

I agree with other posters it is worth checking out the school and dept. Attending a LAC you trade off a wide variety of classes for individual attention. I know the top Bio grad from a LAC the year my DD2 graduated went directly into a PhD program at UCB. That’s a pretty good result.

Thank you posting this information. This is helpful and I will continue to follow.

A biology major, on its own, is not very useful - one needs to specialize. LACs are probably the best place for kids who want to follow a research pathway, especially one that leads to a PhD. On the other hand, large research universities have a wider range of fields that a student can explore.

My kid is a neuroscience major at a LAC, and is pretty happy there. My own background was not in the USA, but by undergraduate was in biology, followed by a masters in Environmental biology and a PhD in Ecology.

However, you never know where you will end up. A friend’s son started his BS as a chem major, ended up graduating as an environmental chem major, did a masters in environmental biology, and is now doing his PhD in Fish and Wildlife.

The best places for being engaged directly in research activity as an undergraduate, i.e., actually engage in one’s own research project which can lead to conference presentations or publications, are LACs. While large research universities have more labs and likely more research projects, they rarely involve undergraduates in the actual research. Most of the research in research universities is done by graduate students and/or involves graduate students. Undergraduates are generally hired (for pay or credit) as support for the graduate research.

Agree bio major on its own won’t let you be much more than a technician. I don’t think you should specialize too soon. That’s for grad school. DH was a bio and physics major. His PhD says biophysics, but what he studied was cell motility in e coli. To the extent he used physics it was to measure rotational speed. His focus has evolved over the years and he now studies how cancer cells move. The kind of research he does is brutal. You are chasing grants all the time.

While the typical wisdom is that LACs provide better opportunities for research, my nephew at Rice was invited to work in a lab while he was at freshman orientation and ended up being part of a project that had him being interviewed by NPR. My friends from Caltech who ended up at LACs rarely attended the big conferences and were not doing cutting edge research.

Biology is a broad field. Large U’s are likely to cover most fields and have a wider variety of specific classes in more areas. Do not omit flagship schools from the list. Your D needs to narrow down which aspects she most likes. Botany? Zoolology? And so many more.

She should first look at the overall schools then look at courses available in biology. Look at what is offered at large U’s- public and private to see if smaller schools offer classes in areas of interest. Now is a good time for her to find out how large and diverse the field is.

The best fit school is so much more than a biology major.

When we were looking for a college for my biology major daughter, we considered depth and breadth of courses, major concentrations, research/labs, and whether undergraduates could participate in research. Her college has a robust undergraduate research program that makes it easy for students to find opportunities. Many of her classmates already have research positions.

Biology is a general major and there are a lot of college options. Do your research to find the best fit for your student. That could be a LAC but it could also be a flagship university. Best of luck.

Thanks everyone. Appreciate the feedback. D21 will apply to our flagship school, UMASS Amherst and also UCONN and then some smaller LACs. It seems from the feedback that either type of school can provide a solid education for Bio majors.

I agree that both small schools (LACs) and large schools (such as U.Mass Amherst) can be very good for biology.

I have a daughter who is a bio major. I have assumed that this is going to require some graduate school, whether an MD (not her current plan), masters, or PhD. As such you might want to budget for more than 4 years in university. Of course if you are in-state for U.Mass then you should get a relatively reasonable price – or at least less unreasonable than many schools. We toured it and I quite liked it – D was looking for something smaller.

One thing that we have noticed: At a small university D has gotten to know her professors quite well. This has been helpful in getting coop and research and TA opportunities. However I agree that a larger university will have a wider range of courses and a wider range of majors that are related to biology (such as animal science or neuroscience, just to name two examples).

I agree that most biology majors will likely end up in some kind of grad school, but it’s common to work for a few years at first …teaching, Americorp type programs, research, etc. Of course there will always be some bio majors who work in a totally unrelated field upon graduation.

In terms of getting to know the professors…while a small school does help a lot for obvious reasons, do not discount larger schools. Do your research.

All excellent choices for prospective Bio majors.

Great, thank you, @MWolf !

Remember that students at large U’s also get to know professors in their major. Professors enjoy students who share their passion for their field.